When David M. Potter wrote his book, The Impending Crisis about the politics and social forces in the lead-up to the American Civil War/War Between the States, most educated people had read Milton’s Paradise Lost. Potter, describing the “great triumverate” of Henry Clay, Danial Webster, and John C. Calhoun, described Calhoun as “the greatest champion of error since Milton’s Satan.” Potter could do this, knowing that everyone reading his book would understand the reference. When I first read the book 15 years or so ago, all the grad students in the seminar got the reference, because we’d either read it in high school (me) or in undergraduate English classes. Or out of curiosity (the Marine. That’s when I discovered that the guys in Southwest Asia read anything that didn’t try to flee under its own power.)
Today, if I wanted to assign the book, I’d probably also have to copy Satan’s speech from Paradise Lost and have the students read it as well. No one, outside of a very few charter and private schools, reads things like Milton in their entirety in high school English. Or almost their entirety. When I went back as an adult and read the unexpurgated epic, I found all the anti-Catholic, anti-Church of England bits that the HS edition omitted. The point being, the cohort behind me in the schools likely doesn’t know the story, or Milton’s character, and why Potter made the comparison. Knowing Calhoun, he’d be flattered, based on what I’ve read of him. (Andy Jackson would probably say that Potter gave Calhoun too much credit.)
When given a choice, to the surprise of a number of college administrators, undergrads ask for Great Books courses. You know, Aristotle, Plato, Milton, Adam Smith, Machiavelli, Mary Woolstonecraft, Dante, and others of what is sometimes called “The Western Canon.” Over the years I’ve gone back and filled in gaps, sometimes discovering as I did with Milton that what stood out as a teenager and what I catch as an adult are rather different. The students want to know the references, the meaning of analogies, and where ideas and culture came from. This is unwelcome among many administrators, because 1) it requires faculty who know their stuff and know the Great Books, and 2) there are a lot of Dead White European Males in the list. There are no federal awards or grants for Great Books courses. The very fact that the DWEMs are Frowned Upon by the Establishment is part of the lure. If you ban it, they will try to read it, just for shock value. Like a student I had who showed up with a copy of Mein Kampf. I congratulated him on taking on the task, and assured him that no, there are no good translations. Hitler needed an editor. The student later admitted that the book was, on the whole, rather boring and repetitive. (As one of my colleagues said, “Wait till he gets to On Capital by Marx. Then he’ll really know what boring means.”)
Seventy years ago, everyone who would have read Impending Crisis at least had a passing knowledge of Milton. Today? I’d be happy if an undergrad confused him with Milton Friedman. There was a common culture that is fading, or being eroded. “Great Triumverate” “Milton’s Satan.” Those references are slipping away, with a lot of other things. We lose them at our peril, because reading Satan’s great monologues gives such a perspective on the people who have that mindset today. Old Scratch really did have all the great lines.